Optometric Management Tip # 459   -   Wednesday, December 01, 2010
How to Change Negative Behavior of Staff Members

It's a touchy subject: how to discipline employees who do not follow the rules of the office.  This topic was brought up by an email from a reader who asked for advice on how to handle staff members who repeatedly talk or text on their cell phones while they are supposed to be working in the office.  Similar situations include making personal phone calls on office phones, using office computers for personal internet browsing, and chronic tardiness.  What should an office manager or practice owner do when office policies are ignored?

First step: Do you have a policy?
You can't have a policy for everything and when something new occurs, like texting while at work, you will have to address it.  This can easily be done at a staff meeting as a general announcement to all.  The practice owner or office manager might say something like: “It has come to our attention that some staff members are using their cell phones for personal use during work hours.  We are adopting the policy that cell phones may not be used during work.  They should be turned off and kept in your purse or with your personal belongings, not with you.  If you have family emergencies or other short needs like taking a call from a child after school, those calls should go to our main phone number.”  If questions arise at that time, just address them honestly and openly.

Supervise
As much as we would like to presume that once we tell employees how we want them to act that all will be well from that point on, I have never found that to be true.  Most employees need supervision to ensure the model behavior we're seeking.  This is usually an office manager.  Without someone of authority keeping an eye on things, behavior can decline in a manner that may be preferred by the staff, but is not good for the patient or the business.  Many eye care practices completely lack this supervisory role.  The owner may view it as a luxury the practice can't afford or as an approach only needed by large practices, but I believe all practices need someone who shares the owner's vision in a supervisory role.  Since most optometrists spend most of their time in an exam room, the practice needs a manager.

Direct personal feedback
If a staff member is observed violating the policy after the general announcement, it is important for the manager or practice owner to have a private one-on-one discussion about it.  This is crucial to changing the behavior.  Ongoing disregard for the policy happens fairly often in the real world.  Maybe employees forget or maybe they are challenging the rules to see how serious they are.  If an employee continues to text, or continues to show up late for work, and no one of authority seems to notice (no one says anything), then obviously the policy is not really enforced.  There were no consequences, so it must be OK.

The best way I've found to correct poor behavior is to show the individuals who disregard policy that there are consequences.  To be singled out and talked to is usually enough.  If it occurs a few more times, it becomes embarrassing and humiliating.  The employee realizes that the manager is not going away.  Management is obviously quite serious about it.  They are now watching very closely.  It is most effective to have the personal chat immediately after the act.  That way, there is no room for misunderstanding.  Just say: “I noticed you were texting a few minutes ago.  Did you not understand our policy about that?”  Or, “I see you are late for work again.  It is 9:20am and you are just getting here.”  Be sure to talk in private out of respect for the individual; there is no need to embarrass an employee in front of co-workers.  Just ask if you can speak to the person for a moment, duck into an exam room and close the door.

It's not easy to confront someone, but good managers must learn to get past that and stand up for what is best for the practice.  The way I look at, if an employee has the will to disregard a clearly stated rule, I have the will to speak to him about it.

How to deliver the feedback
I have found that staff members are usually very sensitive to criticism from their boss.  I prefer to take a very kind, thoughtful approach with no anger in my tone.  I may project a little disappointment, but no anger.  That can take practice for the manager because the confrontation brings on some stress, so it's easy to become defensive and emotional.  Work on it.  Be patient and understanding.  The fact that the discussion is occurring is enough punishment for most staff.  If you come down even slightly hard I have seen many employees over-react.  Their morale suffers and they can have a difficult time shaking it, so I go very easy at first.  Of course, as the number of meetings about the same behavior continues, the manager should become more and more stern.

As you speak to the employee, help them to see the issue as it affects the practice.  Here are some factors you can mention:

Dismissal
If an employee repeatedly ignores warnings and cannot change the unwanted behavior, management has no choice but to discharge the employee.  If you know that is coming, you may want to advertise the position available, hire a new employee, and train him or her before letting the former employee go.


Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management